Kateryna Botanova

A few observations on care, awareness, and connecting time we spent together with the war in sight

Kateryna Botanova is a Basel-based cultural critic, curator, and writer from Kyiv, Ukraine. She writes and lectures on decolonisation, solidarity and care, focusing on artistic practices and social dynamics outside of the Global West. She is a co-curator of the Swiss multidisciplinary biennial Culturescapes and an editor of its anthologies. Since 2023, she has been a guest senior curator of the Research Platform of the Pinchuk Art Centre (Kyiv). In the 2010s, she was a director of the Centre for Contemporary Art in Kyiv and a founding editor of the online magazine Korydor. She is a member of PEN-Ukraine. In the last two years, her essays on the impact of the war on culture and arts have been included in books published by Routledge, McGill-Queen’s University Press, Forum Transregionale Studien, and CEU Press, among others.

Can arts save Europe? Can arts contribute to having a better world? Do festivals make sense?

These were the most frequent questions I have been hearing during the three days of the European Festivals Association’s Arts Festivals Summit on Usedom.

Other apparently urgent issues were: are care and connectivity empty slogans? Do we need more of the same? Is everything OK?

At least one takeaway from the Lab I was a part of was that there were no simple or obvious answers to any of these questions. And also — that your position on what makes sense and whether everything is OK pretty much depends on who you are: a woman, a person of colour, a queer person, a displaced person, or someone from “outside G8 countries” (as our colleague, a prominent Bangladeshi photojournalist and storyteller Shahidul Alam elegantly put it in his speech). Apparently, identity matters.

But why all these questions in the first place? Do they signal a serious crisis of sense for the arts, for arts festivals in Europe, when simply repeating “We are a part of the solution” is not working as long as it is not clear what the problem is?

In these three days here, I have met so many wonderful people who know what the problems are. Referring to the keywords of this Summit — they are aware of them. They care. And out of that care, maybe not solutions, but some striving for answers comes.

To quote Shahidul again, out of all the possible problems, war is the worst one to have. There are many wars in the world today. I would want to refer to all of them, to name them for us to know, to face, to witness. The outrageous war in Gaza is among the ones we cannot omit.

But I don’t have the agency to do that. I am not there. The war I can talk about is the war of Russia in Ukraine— even though there are people in this room who know much more about it, they live in it, when I live only next to it. They work in it. My deepest respect to all of you, festival-makers from Ukraine.

Tonight, let’s talk about making sense of art with the war in sight, with all the wars in sight. I suggest starting with a question that is not easy at all. But utterly necessary.

How to learn living next to violent deaths, mass graves, and knowledge of torture? Looking for an answer to this question, a few years ago, before the full-scale invasion of Russia into Ukraine, but already after the Russian occupation of Crimea and the war in Eastern Ukraine in 2014, a prominent Ukrainian artist, Nikita Kadan, suggested “To measure contemporary art against the execution pit.”

He wrote then, “We have bones in common. Our skeleton is divided and piled in pits in the Donbas and Syria, in Sandarmokh in Karelia, and the former Janowska Street in Lviv, on every continent, under the strings of state borders running across the earth’s surface. This is the secret unity of the world.” In his vision, the vanity of art is shattered by the never-ending violence of history that goes in circles, creating more and more execution pits and mass graves, which at times turn into memorial sites and at times do not.

When facing history, art acquires a purpose or maybe even a mission to bear witness to it, make sense of it, and make it graspable. Then art might even become a tool of solidarity in opposing the never-ending violence. But how do we learn to live next to violent deaths when they become an immediate daily reality and simultaneously try to explain to the world what we are going through? Both tasks are impossible and still inevitable, inescapable. Both questions are what has been driving artists in Ukraine since 2022.

Inside these two are many other questions that would have been considered not urgent, postponable, non-essential, or even totally irrelevant just two years ago. The tight knot of questions is constantly growing like a snowball. Now, when everything, including art, is measured against execution pits, everything is urgent, and nothing is postponable.

A bit less than two years ago, I thought that arts in Ukraine were defined by silence. In one of the articles I wrote, “Ukrainian culture today is a void compiled of empty spaces that could have been filled with books, exhibitions, and performances that did not happen – and most probably, will not happen for a long time.” In the deafening shock of the first months after the invasion, the phantom pains of things planned, prepared, or imagined, pains of “a normal life” which should have come back soon after an imminent victory of Ukraine, were still intense.

Already in spring, after the liberation of the Kyiv region, after Bucha, Irpin, and Chernyhiv, it became clear that nothing was coming back any time soon. Two years into the war, it is excruciatingly clear that the previous life is never coming back. Whenever it ends, this war changed us forever. This different life demanded understanding, caring, and delicately making sense. And apparently, it required some intellectual sacrifices.

How do we make sense of the war? In a very intimate conversation recorded in the autumn of 2023, two old-time friends, award-winning Ukrainian film directors Iryna Tsilyk and Maryna Stepanska, shared a concern that the topic of war “held everyone hostage” and wasn’t going away any time soon. They talked about a “cemetery of ideas” that might never be realised since they don’t answer the needs of this reality in “these new times.”

But what are the needs of these new times? Do they radically limit freedoms – of thought, expression, or creation? Do they open new horizons by presenting challenges unimaginable before, in other times, before the war? Do they bring a sense of urgency to the issues unseen or neglected? Or all of this simultaneously and all the time? (With a footnote, “We wish it would have never happened.”)

In 2023, the biggest Ukrainian literature festival, Book Arsenal, had a theme, “Koly vse maye znachennya.” This phrase has a beautiful double meaning: when everything matters and when everything makes sense. During four days in Kyiv, in between air raid alerts, dozens of writers and public intellectuals, together with almost 30,000 visitors, tried to reflect on the movement of geopolitical tectonic plates caused by the war in Ukraine and the ways this war is changing Ukraine and the world.

The title captured very precisely the needs of the new times when everything, literally everything, started to matter, and for that, it should be made sense of.

Now, nothing could be postponed or left aside if these times were to be fully understood.

In its own rather perverse manner, the war radically shifted horizons. Out of the initial fear of a void came a polyphony of voices trying to make sense of everything. What are they talking about? What is this everything?

For one, how do you live next to violent deaths, knowing you can be the next one? Moreover, how to make sense not only of these deaths but of one’s own life? Intense debates that went on in Ukrainian society after 2014 and on a much higher level after 2022 pit ethics of struggle against ethics of living. As a result, there should be life, its values, social structures, and social contracts constantly renegotiated for the struggle to make sense.

A persistent joint search for the accurate and often practical meaning of notions such as solidarity, equality, dignity, agency, awareness, and responsibility rebuilds an understanding of society and a feeling of collective “we.”

Writing about compassion and powerlessness while observing other people’s pains, brilliant writer Susan Sontag said: “Compassion is an unstable emotion. It needs to be translated into action, or it withers. The question is what to do with the feelings that have been aroused, the knowledge that has been communicated. If one feels that there is nothing “we” can do – but who is that “we”? – and nothing “they” can do either – and who are “they”? – then one starts to get bored, cynical, apathetic.”

Does this actually mean that if we – all of us here, for example – really want our compassion not to wither, we need to turn it into action? This actually means that the distance between “us” here and the suffering of others is an illusion that we ourselves create by pulling our imaginary safeties over our heads. Especially here, on the German island of Usedom, on the Polish island of Wolin, on the border that, among other things, separates the knowledge of how vague safety can be and how real the danger of the war – this war in Europe, among others – is, it is important to say: There is always something WE can do with compassion, empathy, and care. Care is action.

Overall, when everyone feels utterly helpless but keeps going and doing because there is always something we can do, a very different, powerful, diverse and vocal unity of “us” emerges. When I say this, I think of colleagues, present here, of KharkivMusicFest who still have their festival going under heavy daily shelling, not in the shiny concert halls but in the basements. Of the festivals in the refuge – like Gogolfest – that keep going all over Europe telling the stories of war. Of Odesa Art Museum that opened its doors to visitors just a few days after a Russian missile hit the ground a few meters from its building. Of the theatres in Kyiv that stop their shows when the air raid alert starts, allowing everyone to go to a shelter and pick it up from the very word and gesture when the alert is over.

This collective body of resistance is also a collective body of memory, commemoration, and a collective voice of struggle.

In Ukraine, from day one, artists collected evidence of pains and losses, fears and fights. Over time, it became evident that artistic works are not just witnessing and documenting crimes but also weaving memories. To withstand mass murders and mass graves, cultural memory strived to remember everyone and everything: names, faces, people, events, towns, and landscapes that the war tried to wipe out. Dedicated remembering became an ethics of living. It is as if by not letting any moment of the present or any loss slip away, we were also trying to fight the blind spots and losses of our long twentieth century. To quote a Ukrainian poet and writer from Kharkiv, Ivanna Skyba-Yakubova, “to sew up black ruptures in the universe.”

How do we remember those gone forever without losing sight of those still present? For the first time since the two big wars of the past century, Ukrainian society is challenged to include oceans of deeply injured and traumatised and relocated people – veterans and refugees, people of culture also included in both. Will revenge ever bring peace to the dead and wounded? Is revenge a part of justice? Is justice even attainable?

Questions multiply in the blink of an eye. What do we mean when we say justice? What do we mean when we say victory? What do we mean when we say peace? Unity? Solidarity? What do we mean when we say Europe?

In a text that went viral over the world media, the film director Iryna Tsilyk wrote: –
“Old Europe, with all its complicated past, is now trying to put on a face, but the house of cards is falling apart, “never again” no longer works, wars, terrorist attacks, and all other possible tools for the destruction of one people by another come again, and again, and again. Only their forms and technologies are now more modern and sophisticated. Sometimes, I think, in fact, we, the inhabitants of planet Earth, or much more narrowly, Europeans, are all interconnected and very vulnerable. It’s just that this time, Ukrainians had to accept the fact of our total fragility and inability to think seriously about the future a little earlier than other European colleagues.”

Here comes yet another set of issues that matter: recognising that being European today is radically different from what we Ukrainians used to imagine some years ago. It is also definitely different from what we Europeans used to imagine. Perhaps the new notion of what being European means is actually being forged in the trenches of Ukrainian East, in the towns under the sounds of the air raid alerts, in the voices of artists and intellectuals trying to make sense of all this.

Who are we today bearing witnesses to the war? Who are we, rediscovering new meanings of home, landscape, and community after those have been damaged? Who are we, rearticulating the values of life, dignity, freedom, and solidarity for us and for all? Insisting that peace is not the absence of war; peace is the presence of the collective voice of people standing for justice and truly universal human rights.

In this collective of people, connected by care and compassion, there are we – people of culture. Here, culture returns to its mission of being the witness and recording device, a tool to make reality graspable and meaningful, especially when meanings tend to slip away in pain.

Culture is a hand stretched in solidarity toward the others – the ones fragile and injured, fighting and not giving up – with a utopian dream of “never again.”

This text was the closing keynote of Kateryna Botanova at the European Festivals Association’s Arts Festivals Summit Usedom on 14 May on Usedom, Germany, hosted by the Usedom Music Festival. This keynote is based on the article “The Never-ending Lessons of War,” published online in Eurozine on 23 February 2024.

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